Audio architects

by Rob Horning

5 April 2006


This week’s New Yorker has an interesting article about the Muzak corporation and its shift from supplying “elevator music”—symphonic versions of contemporary hits, ala 101 Strings; a style that climaxed in the early 1960s—to “audio branding,” or giving retail space an emotional identity rooted in carefully segued pop music. I can’t decide if these so-called audio architects, the music supervisors who do the programming, have a supremely instrumental interest in music or a completely pure one—it’s probably both, but that seems sort of a lame synthesis. The point is that these audio architects are not interested in music for their own sake—they have no personal stake in projecting a particular image of their own, so they really hear what is there and what it connotes.  They understand all the variables regarding the image of the musican and the allusions in the songs and the platitudinous lyrics without having to disguise any of that from themselves, because they are not interested in promoting their understanding of music as a sign of their own brilliant personal taste. In a sense, they are the ultimate music critics. Surely they must discipline themselves to perform the thorough analyses of pop songs that their business demands—how to make the right demographic feel at home but not distracted in an Ann Taylor store, how to alienate the kind of customers you don’t want, how to alternately relax or stimulate customers in a way that makes them want to buy things. It seems to me the Muzak folks understand commercial music in its authentic context the best, and they perform none of the dubious (or essential, depending on your attitude, I guess) ideological work that we music writers do to transform commercial product made mainly for money into the stuff of dreams about oneself and one’s potential for emotional fulfillment.

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